Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Flying is way too safe

Flying somewhere with a commercial airline involves a lot of safety checks on both the planes and the passengers. This is a hassle to all travelers and I wonder why people put up with it. I guess it gives a false sense of comfort and security that many people need.

Sitting in the air at 10,000 m above ground and moving forward at a speed of 850 km/h isn't very natural to humans, so I can understand the fear many have of flying. It's not a rational fear, since flying is very safe, but fear isn't always logical.

But security checks at airports have now become a ridiculous event. The level of detail that is checked, and the suspicious eye towards travelers take away from the enjoyment of going somewhere. It is something I dread every time I'm in an airport.

After the 9/11 terrorist attack, governments felt the need improve air security. I guess the air travel industry pushed this through because they were scared that people would stop flying. But if you have a look at exactly how dangerous it is to fly, it is hard to motivate this policy. 

Deaths per billion miles traveled:

  • Motorcycle: 213
  • Car: 7.3
  • Train: 0.42
  • Air: 0.07

That's right, it is 100 times more dangerous to drive a car somewhere, than to take a flight there. But no one thinks for a second about road safety before going on a trip. There is very little public outcry over how many are killed in traffic. When it comes to air travel, somehow we otherwise rational beings just cant put things in perspective. You are more likely to be struck by lightning than die on a flight.

Imagine the extra cost of this massive security obsession; all the extra personnel handling security at airports, the cost of the scanning equipment, the added engineering costs to the aircraft, etc, all because people need a fake sense of comfort.

Imagine how much more convenient it would be to the travelers and how much lower the ticket price would be, if air travel was just as safe as going by train. We're not talking about the "reckless" act of car travel now, just the slightly more dangerous mode of going by train, which is just six times worse. I'd say we can skip all forms of security, and still not reach that level of risk. Let people board the flights completely unchecked, and it will still not happen.

I travel a lot. On average I probably fly 100,000 miles per year, and over my life time it might be 8 million miles. That would give me a risk of death from air travel of 1 in 14,000, or 0.007%, during my entire life time. If I instead stayed at home I would be at greater risk of dying from hypertension, because I deprived myself of the joy of travel.

Travel in general isn't even that dangerous compared to other preventable causes of death  (US statistics below). It is ironic that those with flight anxiety who turn to alcohol and drugs to cope, probably are more likely to die from their consumption than the flight itself.

Onward flight policy

Another nuisance is the policy of requiring onward flight tickets. This means that when you check in at the airport of your home country, you need to show both the ticket to your destination, and the ticket leaving your destination, a so called onward flight. This is not enforced in all destination countries, and not if you are a citizen of the destination country, but for most travelers it is a requirement.

If you are going on a short vacation, this is not a problem, but for me who live abroad long stretches of time, it is quite inconvenient. I never know where I will be going next, so I just buy a one way ticket and decide later. I have had to make stressful last minute ticket purchases at airports because of this, when the check-in crew refused me entry. This is quite frustrating, since I have all travel documents and enough money to support myself and to buy a ticket to leave later.

The reason this policy exists is that the immigration office at the destination can refuse entry to any traveler for any reason, and when this happens the airline has to pay for the return trip out of the country. So this is not a government policy, instead it is an airline policy so they can save money.

I wrote to IATA and asked them to change the policy, for example allowing me to deposit $500 at the time of check in, which I later claim at an office in the destination airport. But unfortunately I was met with silence. My solution is instead to find the cheapest ticket going out of the destination country, no matter where, and try to refund it later, or see it as part of the travel expense. 

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